Glenn Greenwald: An Interview with The Art of the Possible

Seemingly out of nowhere, Glenn Greenwald burst into the blogosphere in October of 2005 at his former blogspot site, Unclaimed Territory. As a lawyer having practiced law in Manhattan for a decade, including litigating constitutional issues, he was well-equipped to analyze and eviscerate defenders of President George Bush’s ordering the National Security Agency (NSA) to secretly engage in warrantless interception of telephone calls and emails of U.S. persons, in blatant violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Indeed, when the New York Times broke the NSA story in December of ’05, Greenwald quickly emerged as the go-to guy for explaining, in readable terms, what FISA requires and why the Bush Administration’s extreme arguments for presidential “inherent authority” to violate any law the Executive doesn’t like – including FISA or bans on torture — were not only meritless, but virtually limitless and radically un-American.

Since establishing himself online as a premier expert on FISA, Greenwald has written three books: How Would a Patriot Act?A Tragic Legacy, and the just-released Great American Hypocrites — all of which shot up to number one or close to it at Amazon. In February of 2007 he was invited to write at Salon, where he continues to blog. Greenwald has appeared on C-Span several times, such as when the Cato Institute sponsored him to discuss his second book, and also was a panelist addressing the state of the media at YearlyKos 2007. Additionally, he has written several articles for American Conservative magazine, and most recently a piece for The National Interest — The Perilous Punditocracy. He has discussed Bush’s FISA law-breaking, foreign policy and the rancid state of the American establishment media on radio shows too numerous to list. Currently, Greenwald is completing a study of Portugal’s drug-policy reforms for The Cato Institute.

Lately, Greenwald’s blogging has largely focused on the media and its slavish devotion to GOP-peddled narratives and trivialities, as well as the astonishing fact that various neoconservatives whose views have been demonstrated to have disastrous consequences, continue to hold respectable positions in the elite media. Greenwald pounds home the absurd reality that neoconservatives remain a staple as interview subjects on news programs and treated as if they are Serious foreign policy experts, notwithstanding their incredible track records of being wrong — Iraq! — and that they often agitate – explicitly or implicitly — for yet more wars.

He lives most often in Brazil with his domestic partner, because that nation recognizes their same-sex relationship as a legal basis for Greenwald’s residing there. The reciprocal is not true of the United States, where Greenwald’s Brazilian life partner could not qualify to reside here based “merely” on their domestic partnership.

[Editor’s note: Any links to Greenwald’s Salon posts above or below will require a BRIEF, quickly by-passable ad click-though the first time one such link is clicked. It is worth it.]


AoTP: Glenn Greenwald, welcome and thank you for agreeing to this interview. To begin, we’d like to know how optimistic you are that The Way Things Are vis-a-vis imperialistic foreign policy holding nearly unquestioned status by an approving media — and even by most in both major political parties — can be changed so that the more humble foreign policy envisioned by the Founders could gain some traction?

GG: I’m relatively optimistic about this for one reason: Iraq. The extent of the occupation’s unpopularity can’t really be overstated. Huge numbers of Americans believe the invasion was a mistake, that they were misled into supporting the war, that it has made us less safe, etc. Those perceptions can’t but undermine the reflexive support Americans have had for invasions, bombings and wars. It has eroded the underlying premises that the Government espouses to convince citizens to support imperialistic policies. It has made Americans even more distrustful of official pronouncements from both the Government and establishment press. All of this has worked to erode the tools used to convince the citizenry to support our ongoing imperial project.

At the same time, none of this is going to be uprooted overnight. Our abandonment of our republican origins and pursuit of empire has developed over decades. Many of the concepts used to justify it are embedded in our political culture. Change is happening inexorably, but structural change of this sort, absent violent upheaval, is necessarily incremental.

AoTP: You are Jewish. Therefore, aren’t you “supposed to” advocate that the United States’ foreign policy interests and Israel’s are identical, and thus endorse extensive U.S. military intervention in the Middle East?

GG: There’s a misconception that American Jews largely support the neoconservative agenda. They simply don’t. Polling data on this question is unequivocally clear. A recent poll from the American Jewish Committee, surveying American Jewish opinion, found that in large numbers, they disapprove of the way the U.S. is handling its “campaign against terrorism” (59-31); overwhelmingly believe the U.S. should have stayed out of Iraq (67-27); believe that things are going “somewhat badly” or “very badly” in Iraq (76-23); and believe that the “surge” has either made things worse or has had no impact (68-30).

More strikingly, when asked whether they would support or oppose the United States taking military action against Iran, a large majority — 57-35% — say they would oppose such action, even if it were being undertaken “to prevent [Iran] from developing nuclear weapons.” While Jews hold views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which are quite pessimistic about the prospects for Israel’s ability to achieve a lasting peace with its “Arab neighbors,” even there, a plurality (46-43) supports the establishment of a Palestinian state.

People like Bill Kristol and Joe Lieberman are not only a small minority among Americans generally, they represent a minority of American Jews. Another recent poll, this one from the nonpartisan Israel Project, found that the vast majority of American Jewish voters have priorities that are indistinguishable from American voters generally, and it is only a small minority of those voters for whom Israel is a top priority: “Three quarters of the American Jewish community say that there are other issues more important than Israel,” . . .only 23 percent of the Jewish population listed Israel as a top issue. . .While 51% of the respondents acknowledged that the economy and jobs were their major concern, only 7% cited the Middle East conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and the threat of Iran.”

AoTP: In your second book, A Tragic Legacy, you lay the blame for U.S. war-mongering, especially in the Middle East, largely at the feet of neconservatives, while allowing that there are also some “garden variety hawks” involved in the equation. Many neoconservatives hold elite positions in the Establishment media and are regularly consulted on cable news. What do you think motivates neoconservatives, and why do they remain so popular in “high places?”

GG: The term “neoconservatives” now encompasses a large group of people, so it’s difficult to describe “their” motives as though they’re a monolith. Some believe generally that the U.S. should be a militaristic society and ought to dominate the world by military force, and thus have as their top priority the building up of an Enemy to justify those policies. Others, of course, have deep — really primary — allegiances to Israel, and perceive that endless domination of the Middle East by the U.S. is in the interests of Israel.

They are able to occupy high positions because the central premise of our political culture is that those who favor war and militarism are strong and patriotic, while those who oppose it are weak and subversive. Until that premise is uprooted, neoconservatives will have a place at the table of power, no matter how discredited and radical they are exposed to be.

AoTP: Your blogger profile rose exponentially when you became arguably the best source for understanding FISA, and the implications of the Bush’s claimed authorities for years of violating it. You were absolutely dogged on the matter, both in your legal analyses and insistence that the issue should be an important scandal. Do you take satisfaction from your work in that regard, and to what extent do you think some justice and correctives have resulted?

GG: I absolutely think that the work of bloggers (and their readers), along with related activist groups, changed the outcome of the FISA and surveillance debates. There was a long period of time after the NSA story was first revealed by the NYT when there was almost nobody other than a small handful of people writing about the NSA lawbreaking specifically and especially the theories of the omnipotent Executive underlying all of it.

And the recent victory in the House, where House Democrats finally refused to comply with the President’s orders and refused to give him vast new warrantless eavesdropping powers and telecom amnesty, would not have happened without the work of bloggers and their readers. There just wasn’t anyone else interested in those issues, and the usually invulnerable bipartisan cast of Beltway lobbyists, pundits and other assorted operatives were all lined up in unison to make sure those measures passed. That’s a small victory, but I think it reveals a template for how these battles can be waged with increasing potency.

AoTP: You very seldom, if ever, write about gay and lesbian issues per se. Yet discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation directly affects where you live, since you and your domestic partner — who is Brazilian — cannot be together on any regular basis in the U.S. Do you hold strong views about anti-gay laws in your own country?

GG: The state of American law with regard to same-sex couples is an ongoing disgrace. America is one of the very few countries in the world — along side countries such as China and Yemen — to continue to ban HIV-positive individuals from immigrating. And the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from extending any benefits (including immigration rights) to same-sex couples means that we put our gay citizens whose partners are foreign nationals in the excruciating predicament of being forced either to live apart from their life partner or live outside of their own country. That is reprehensible.

Most civilized countries, even those that don’t yet recognize same-sex marriage, refuse to put their citizens in that situation. Brazil was a military dictatorship until 1985. It has the largest Catholic population of any country in the world. And yet I’m able to obtain from the Brazilian government a permanent visa because my Brazilian partner’s government recognizes our relationship for immigration purposes, while the government of my supposedly “free,” liberty-loving country enacted a law explicitly barring such recognition.

AoTP: You’ve done an enormous amount of valuable, original investigative work at your blog, in magazine articles and in your books exposing the corruption of the Establishment media; it’s willingness to obediently spew GOP talking points and narratives about domestic and foreign policy, and to focus on petty and inane trivialities such as Obama’s bowling score or how much John Edwards pays for his haircuts. Some feel a resurrection of the Fairness Doctrine is at least a partial answer to our media malaise. Do you?

GG: I tend to be a First Amendment absolutist and cringe at the prospect of government regulation over our means of expression. I understand the sentiment behind the Fairness Doctrine. I believe that media consolidation under the control of an ever-shrinking number of large, homogeneous corporations is a serious threat to free political discourse and investigative journalism.

But I believe that developing alternatives to that monolith — such as those developing on the Internet and elsewhere — is a far more attractive solution to that problem. I don’t understand how anyone, after watching the abuses of the Bush administration for the last eight years, would want to vest in government officials the power to judge the content of what goes over the airwaves. One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to assume competence and benign intent on the part of political officials when deciding how much power to give them. We ought to assume the worst about them — about their abilities, integrity and motives — and only then, based on those suppositions, should we decide how much power, and what specific powers, we’re willing to vest in them.

AoTP: You’ve been holding up various mainstream media figures to contemptuous examination: WaPo’s Fred HiattJoe KleinMark Halperin (former Political Director of ABC News and now a political analyst for Time Magazine and editor at large)John Harris (former National Political Editor of The Washington Post), Brian Williams and Peggy Noonan are just a few examples. Do you envision that your focus on the media’s sins will continue?

GG: The subversion of our Republic, its political values and our constitutional framework could not have occurred without the full-scale complicity of a corrupt and vapid establishment media, so it’s vital that the focus remain on them. I think there are two vital goals to pursue — (1) revealing what that establishment is and the function it fulfills in order to shame and discredit its members as much as possible (so as to modify their behavior and lessen their influence), and (2) building alternatives so that ideas and information can be disseminated widely without having to rely on those corrupt media institutions.

AoTP: During a recent blogging heads debate you had with Megan McArdle, she repeatedly insisted that the Founders saw no special role for the press, and that including freedom of the press in the First Amendment did not signify otherwise. Yet Thomas Jefferson said: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Could you expand on why you disagree with McArdle about the role a free press was and is supposed to play in our republic?

GG: Many of the Founders themselves used a free press to achieve all sorts of political goals. Their writings were rambunctious, adversarial, harsh, and even hostile. For obvious reasons, their primary concern was to create as many checks as possible on abuse of government power, and a vibrant press that would serve as a watchdog over the political class was — as both their actions and words conclusively prove — a key instrument in achieving that. They didn’t protect press freedoms in the First Amendment because they thought it was unimportant. Anyone with even a basic understanding of the dynamic the Founders envisioned for preserving liberty knows the central role they envisioned for a free press.

AoTP: Are there contemporary journalists whose work you do admire?

GG: Yes. There are many journalists, even in the establishment press, who do superb work. The Boston Globe’s Charlie Savage almost single-handedly cast light on the administration’s use of signing statements to proclaim a presidential right to float above the law. The Washington Post’s Dana Priest engaged in exemplary investigative journalism to reveal the existence of CIA Black Sites throughout Eastern Europe where we disappear our detainees beyond even the monitoring of international human rights agencies. Reporters at McClatchy (formerly Knight-Ridder) did an enormous amount of work, in obscurity, to debunk key administration claims prior to the invasion of Iraq. And there are all sorts of great investigative journalists working independently, on blogs, and in other venues.

The problems of the establishment media, the reason it exists as a propaganda amplifier for the government, are systemic. But there are absolutely individual reporters devoted to fulfilling the most noble functions of journalism. They’re just far too small in number to affect the overall impact that the establishment media has.

AoTP: With reference to your being nearly a First Amendment absolutist, when you you were practicing law you defended the extremely racist and anti-Semitic Matt Hale in several civil cases prior to his criminal conviction, and you’ve blogged rather extensively in opposition to “hate speech” crimes. Was free speech imperiled in the Hale civil cases, as you saw it?

GG: Absolutely. Very well-funded groups were trying to create new precedent where groups with unpopular views could be held liable for the actions they “inspired” with their words. They were trying to subject Matthew Hale and his Church to bankruptcy-inducing civil liability based on the theory that the expression of his White Supremacist ideas led others to go and commit acts of violence against minorities.

The threat to free speech from such pernicious theories is manifest. If you give a speech about the domestic threat posed by Islamic groups inside the U.S. and someone hears you and goes and kills a Muslim — of if you give a speech on the evils of corporate power and someone hears you and is inspired to go kill a CEO — these theories would mean you could be liable for those acts. It would render free speech a nullity.

That has been tried before. In the South, in the 1960s and 1970s, there were attempts to bankrupt the NAACP and various chapters by claiming that boycotts they sponsored inspired people to commit violence in order to enforce them. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that such theories of liability are barred by the First Amendment. But, as always, people don’t care much when the same efforts are made to whatever group happens to be the one expressing the Hated Ideas of the day. That’s why the Founders barred attempts like that with the guarantees enshrined in the First Amendment.

AoTP: The About page at our site describes how we are pursuing a dialogue between, on the one hand, liberals, and on the other, libertarians who have been made unwelcome by a GOP/neocon-dominated-conservative-movement which many libertarians cannot support. Do you find value in such a project — which has antecedents in liberal blogger’s Markos Moulitsas arguing the case for “libertarian Democrats” at Cato Unbound, and calling for an alignment between libertarians and Democrats? (Kos’s argument was met with mixed reactions on both sides of the proposed ideological hook-up.)

GG: I think that many liberals have become much more skeptical of government power and the notion of trusting government leaders as a result of the abuses of the last eight years. Obviously, there are some of them who will quickly lose that skepticism and distrust if there is a Democrat in the White House, but — while recognizing this is just speculation — I honestly believe that’s a minority. I think the radicalism of the last eight years in terms of expansive government power has engendered a real political realignment and made liberals and libertarians far more natural allies than libertarians and those on the Right.

AoTP: You eschew all political labels yourself, even as many have seen fit to tag you as something. But many of your views — such as on the individual’s right to own a firearm, anti-drug-war (Update I)and even criticism of the prescription drug system in which one may not secure a drug without permission from an MD — would fit comfortably within a libertarian worldview, although those positions alone would not necessarily put you in that camp. Do you see value in some parts of libertarian philosophy?

GG: I eschew labels and the act of embracing or rejecting them because they mean too many different things to too many people to have value. They create more confusion than clarity. And, as I just indicated, I think there has been a political realignment over the past eight years that has made those labels even less useful. Worse, labels are often used as shorthand to relieve people of the burden of thinking about someone’s argument (”Oh, he’s just X, so of course he believes that.”) I prefer to advocate my views on an issue-by-issue basis and let others decide what labels they think apply.

AoTP: What do you envision you will be doing five years from now? Is blogging a long-term commitment, and if so, what would you like to able to add to it?

GG: I am extremely passionate about the work I’m doing, which — purely on a personal level — is the most important consideration for me in deciding what I want to do. Daily blogging is an extremely demanding activity, because its demands are so constant and relentless. So while I can’t say how long I expect to continue to blog on a daily basis — and, for now, I still love it and intend to do so indefinitely — it’s impossible for me to envision a full-scale cessation of political writing. The issues that I care about require a long-term battle and they’re ones I’m very devoted to pursuing.

This entry was posted on Monday, May 5th, 2008.

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